Business of sport: Hunter's Light is the best hope for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid's herd of stallions at this year's Dubai World Cup.
Hunting for greatness at horse racing's richest run
Hunter's Light is the best hopefor Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid's herd of stallions at this year's Dubai World Cup. The horse combines both sides of the emirate's investment in the business - the sporting success of Godolphin's stables and the pedigree of Darley's lucrative breeding operation. Colin Randall, Foreign Correspondent, writes
Amid the thundering hoofs in Saturday's Dubai World Cup, those belonging to one of the most fancied runners will bear witness to a mighty operation combining commercial savvy and sporting excellence.
Hunter's Light is among the favourites at the world's most valuable race, with prize money on offer of US$10 million (Dh36.7m).
He is a product of the second crop of foals from Dubawi, one of the world's most valuable stud stallions and a fitting standard-bearer for the global breeding business of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Sheikh Mohammed's involvement in the sport of kings - passionate but also founded on the logic of heritage - has two components.
There is the racing arm, Godolphin, and behind that the Darley breeding operation with its headquarters at Newmarket, the heart of international thoroughbred racing situated north of London.
From low-key origins, Darley has grown in three decades into a major force, standing stallions in seven countries.
In an industry where performance provides the pedigree that trainers demand, this translates as big business. The market is estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year.
"It is like a wheel," says John Ferguson, Sheikh Mohammed's bloodstock adviser. "The foal is born, becomes a yearling, goes into training, hopefully becomes one of the chosen few as a winner, then retires to stud at great value. And the wheel continues to turn."
Even top prize money can pale in insignificance to the value a champion stallion may acquire in later life.
Simon Crisford, the racing manager for Godolphin, expects to have 15 to 20 runners in the six events in Dubai.
Looking on will be key racing figures from all corners of the world, including members of the Qatari royal family and owners and breeders from the United States, Great Britain and Australia.
Staged annually since its launch by Sheikh Mohammed in 1996, the Dubai World Cup is established as a headline event in the horse racing calendar.
Prize money for its six races reaches $21m, $10m of that for the World Cup alone. These are figures unsurpassed anywhere in the world.
"Under the lights with the magnificent grandstand and fabulous horses ridden by the best jockeys, it is a big, wonderful and exciting sporting occasion," says Mr Crisford. "It's the richest day's racing in the world and the Dubai Gold Cup is the richest race.
"It represents Dubai to the world and that world is watching in its millions. It is an event that fits comfortably into a sporting calendar with the tennis, golf and powerboat championships that makes Dubai the sporting capital of the Middle East."
Echoing Mr Ferguson, he says that while the event is essentially about the sport of horse racing of the highest quality, it also represents "a business that is about winning races and increasing the value of bloodstock".
Godolphin's success is illustrated by the list of more than 200 Group 1 race winners to have carried its blue silks.
Last year's Dubai World Cup was won by Monterosso, another thoroughbred sired by Dubawi.
This year, Mr Crisford freely concedes that Monterosso's sibling Hunter's Light may need to produce extraordinary form to beat one of the strong US contenders.
Particularly stiff competition is expected from Animal Kingdom, owned by the Kentucky Team Valor stable and winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Sired by the Brazilian-bred Leroidesanimaux (meaning "the king of animals" once the French words are separated), the horse enjoys a nominal differential of up to four lengths over Hunter's Light.
Even so, Hunter's Light, trained by Saeed bin Suroor, is a noble example of Darley's power to influence the outcome of major races in every continent.
The business value is easily demonstrated. Stud fees for Dubawi, a winner of the Irish 2000 Guineas and the Prix Jacques le Marois in its racing career, weigh in at £75,000 (Dh418,000). And no wonder; a success rate of one foal in every 25 winning a Group 1 race is described by Mr Ferguson as world-beating.
Horse owners the world over buy breeding rights for their mares. At the lowest level, the process can cost about Dh5,500, with veterinary and other charges included, or less.
But Dubawi and comparable champion stallions are in a different league.
In the US, WinStar Farm's Distorted Humor can boast, from five crops, winners with total prize money reported to exceed $30m. Despite the effect on stud fees of the global financial crisis, Distorted Humor still commands $100,000.
Bernardini, a winner of the Preakness Stakes, stands at Darley's Kentucky stables for $150,000, the highest figure among US stallions.
Before the world recession, the numbers were markedly higher.
In the 1980s, the Canadian thoroughbred Northern Dancer, often described as the 20th century "sire of sires" with offspring that went on to become multiple champions on US and British racecourses, stood for $1m with none of the guarantees that normally apply.
Among Northern Dancer's 147 stakes winners was Nijinsky II, which won England's Triple Crown. The now-defunct Kentucky newspaper, Thoroughbred Times, once reported that the horse had at least 11 sons that became "truly outstanding" sires.
Northern Dancer was also the grandsire of Storm Cat, an American thoroughbred with stud fees that in 1999 and 2000 reached $500,000 as North America's leading sire.
Even the scaled-down stud prices of today represent a world that could hardly be more different than the small farm from which Darley grew. Its headquarters, Dalham Hall at Newmarket, date from 1928 and were established and owned by Laurence Philipps, a shipping magnate.
When the Philipps family sold the business to Sheikh Mohammed in 1981, it stood just one stallion. As the business expanded, neighbouring farmland was acquired. Godolphin was launched in 1992.
Mr Ferguson says the roots of the Ruler's horse racing empire can be traced to the 18th century when three stallions, including the renowned Godolphin Arabian, found their way to England.
Among the colourful stories told about Godolphin Arabian is that the horse's odyssey from Yemen, via Syria and Tunisia, to an eventual home in the UK was punctuated by a spell hauling a cart through the streets of Paris.
According to this account, an Englishman, Edward Coke, paid £3 for the six-year-old and had him shipped to Britain and then on to his Derbyshire estate.
What is not in dispute is the effect the horse had on British racing. The first 76 British classics winners had at least one strain of Godolphin Arabian in their pedigree.
Mr Ferguson says Sheikh Mohammed's enthusiasm reflects not only his youth, when his love of racing and a competitive spirit were nurtured, but a heritage that stretches back to those great stallions of the past.
And the pride of his global herd of stud stallions, Dubawi, stands on the brink of greater glory and the business benefits that would flow.
Sired by Dubai Millennium, triumphant in both the Dubai Gold Cup and - by a stunning eight lengths - the Prince of Wales's stakes at Royal Ascot, the horse already claims impressive progeny with Monterosso, Dubawi Heights and Lucky Nine among Group 1 winners.
Given Hunter's Light's eye-catching run of five firsts in six outings, there is at least the hope that Darley could savour another taste of Dubai World Cup glory.
For all Goldolphin's caution, John Ferguson is allowing himself to dream of "yet another son of Dubawi hitting the heights" on Saturday.